Sunday, April 12, 2009

I am not a star in heaven.

In December of 1963, the "British Invasion" of the American music scene was still several months in the future. The Beatles, who would start that invasion, were growing in popularity, just ending a 292 performance run in August at a popular Liverpool nightclub called "The Cavern Club." In 1964, they would be taking the USA by storm and the music scene would never be the same.

But in late November, 1963, the U.S. President was assassinated, and the country was in a somber mood. Radio disk jockeys were playing slower tunes in the mix, toning down the rock and roll until the country's mood changed again. One of the beneficiaries of this inclination to play slower music was an odd tune by the name of "Dominique."

"Dominique" entered the play lists at about the time of Kennedy's assassination, and suddenly simply exploded. Almost immediately, on December 1, the song topped the U.S. music charts and stayed there pegged hard at number one for 4 solid weeks, only dropping off the first week in January, 1964.

"Dominique" is still the only record to hit number one in the USA by a performer from Belgium. (25 years later, in 1989, a Belgian group made number 2, but still no more number ones.)

The song had a catchy tune and was fun to listen to, though a bit monotonous, but the real oddity was that most Americans couldn't understand it because it was sung in French. So it is a testament to the tune itself that the song made it to number one.

Those of you who remember that far back or who happen to be music collectors will know, of course, that the song was a solo - just a woman with a sweet voice singing and playing her guitar. Adding to the novelty was the fact that the Belgian lady with the sweet voice singing in French and playing her guitar was a Catholic Dominican nun, Sister Luc Gabriel. She was promptly dubbed "The Singing Nun."

She had no other records that sold well, and she was promptly forgotten. You forgot her. I forgot her. The world mostly forgot her. A couple years later, a movie was made, supposedly of her life, starring Debbie Reynolds, which the Sister quickly dismissed as simply "fiction."

But here, as the recently late (and missed) Paul Harvey would say, is "The Rest of the Story."

Jeanine Deckers, Sister Luc Gabriel's real name, was born in Brussels in 1933 and worked as a school teacher before becoming a nun and joining the Dominicans. She broke off an engagement to become a nun, and was only 20 years old at the time she entered a convent in Waterloo, Belgium.

She was a good singer and entertained friends, and the other sisters at the convent, by singing and playing her guitar. She wrote songs, and one of them, "Dominique" was especially liked, and the Sisters encouraged her to record the song.

Soeur Sourire ("Sister Smile") as The Singing Nun was known in Europe, was very religious indeed (as you might imagine) and was not that interested in making a recording of the song. But at the other Sisters' continued insistence, she finally did pay a recording studio out of her own pocket to record the song, buying a few records for her friends.

This sort of reminds me of the young truck driver Elvis Presley paying to record a song for his Momma in Memphis 10 years earlier. But I can't think of any more parallels other than they both had to pay to get recorded.

But her record got out and got played and she was a smash in Europe, and, soon, in the USA as well. She even taped an Ed Sullivan show, as the Beatles were to do later.

She gave all the money (a really lot of money) to the convent.

Soeur Sourire was very devout, very earnest in her religion, as stated earlier, but she was becoming more and more disenchanted with some of the Catholic church's conservative teachings, especially on birth control. She became more and more vocal and opinionated. Nuns are supposed to just shut up and pray. Her convent kicked her out. Or, as the bio goes, "She left the convent." Thanks for all the money. Goodbye.

Now Jeanine Deckers again, on the street, no income. She moved in with a childhood friend, Annie Petcher. Only they know if they were lovers, but they would remain together from then on.

Deckers released a second album in 1967, entitled "I am not a star in heaven" recorded under her new professional name, Luc Dominique. It didn't sell. The novelty of a singing nun was over. A song on that album included the lyrics, "Sister Smile is dead. God is the only star." Another song praised contraception.

She took her increasing militancy on the road, a concert tour of Canada and the United State. The tour did not do well.

She wrote a book of inspirational quotes, "Vivre Sa Verite." The book did not do well.

In 1968, sans a realistic musical career, Deckers and her friend opened a school for autistic children.

In this time period, Deckers received a present from the Belgian Government: a tax bill for (approximately) US$50,000. They claimed she owed taxes on money received for "Dominique."

She protested that all the proceeds had gone to the convent, and were therefore tax exempt. But there were no records, no receipts. A nun trusts her Mother Superior. The court said she owed the money. She didn't have any money.

Just to keep her mind permanently fearful, the court case dragged on until 1982. She lost. During this time she entered a deep depression that was never to leave her. The depression deepened. She became addicted to alchohol and other drugs. She suffered nervous breakdowns.

Desperate to raise money, she gave art lessons and guitar lessons while helping Annie run the school. She released an updated disco version of "Dominique," along with a video. I like the disco version, though not as clean and pure as the original. Nobody else did.

Expenses forced their school to close. Deckers was fired from her other teaching job.

The two of them struggled from day to day for another two years.

On March 29, 1985, they committed suicide together.

Annie and The Singing Nun are buried together.

"Am I a failure? I try to stay honest with myself. To look for the truth, and try to question everything in my life...
"Ten years ago I would have said I was a loser. Now I don't think in terms of losing or winning...
Life is a continuum. You're constantly on your way. One day I feel good, the next I feel bad. Altogether it's bearable.
"Would I do it all over again? That's not a good question. You can't. You can't do it all over again. Voila"

—Jeanine Deckers

From Annie Pecher's portion of the jointly-authored suicide note:

"Jeanine... is in constant depression and only lives for me. I live for her. That can't go on.

"We do suffer really too much... We have no more place in life, no ideal except God, but we can't eat that.

"We go to eternity in peace. We trust God will forgive us. He saw us both suffer and he won't let us down.

"It would please Jeanine not to die for the world.

"She had a hard time on earth.

"She deserves to live in the minds of people."

Listen to the 1963 non-disco Dominique here (This is not the solo version.)

The disco version with her video is on YouTube. Everything is on YouTube.

iTunes has the solo version available for download for 99 cents. I got it.

A footnote: In what is perhaps one of the most ironic things of all time, on the very day of her suicide, the Belgian courts awarded The Singing Nun US$300,000 in royalties for composing "Dominique." That would have been enough to take care of her meager needs for life. But she no longer had a life that day.

Dominique, nique, nique, over the land he plods
And sings a little song
Never asking for reward
He just talks about the Lord
He just talks about the Lord

At a time when Johnny Lackland
Over England was the King
Dominique was in the backland
Fighting sin like anything

Now a heretic, one day
Among the thorns forced him to crawl
Dominique with just one prayer
Made him hear the good Lord's call

Without horse or fancy wagon
He crossed Europe up and down
Poverty was his companion
As he walked from town to town

To bring back the straying liars
And the lost sheep to the fold
He brought forth the Preaching Friars
Heaven's soldier's, brave and bold

One day, in the budding Order
There was nothing left to eat
Suddenly two angels walked in
With a loaf of bread and meat

Dominique once, in his slumber
Saw the Virgin's coat unfurled
Over Frairs without number
Preaching all around the world

Grant us now, oh Dominique
The grace of love and simple mirth
That we all may help to quicken
Godly life and truth on earth

Dominique, nique, nique s'en allait tout simplement
Routier pauvre et chantant
En tous chemins, en tous lieux, il ne parle que du bon Dieu

Il ne parle que du bon Dieu
A l'e poque ou Jean-sans-Terre de' Angleterre etait Roi
Dominique, notre Pere, combattit les Albigeois
Repeat first 4 lines: Chorus

Ni chameau, ni diligence il parcout l'Europe a pied
Scandinavie ou Provence dans la sainte pauvrete

Enflamma de toute ecole filles et garcons pleins d'ardeur
Et pour semer la Parole inventa les Freres-Precheurs

Chez Dominique et ses freres le pain s'en vint a manquer
Et deux anges se presenterent portant de grands pains dores

Dominique vit en reve les precheurs du monde entier
Sous le manteau de la Vierge en grand nombre rassembles

Dominique, mon bon Pere, garde-nous simples et gais
Pour annoncer a nos freres la Vie et la Verite


  1. I had no idea at all of the sad ending to her story. I remember the song - it was very popular in the UK too, but of what happened next, nothing. I don't even remember the film about her. How tragic. I do hope the tax authorities got their money.....

  2. I am intrigued to know if you laboriously copied out the French words? Because if you copied and pasted, whatever happened to the accents? I do private lessons on how to produce accented letters, special rates for friends.

  3. @A. I don't know about the taxes. I'm sure the royalties went to her estate and the taxes were taken out of that, unfairly so if so. Or perhaps the convent got their hands on her authorship royalties also. :(

    @Sheila - Not laboriously copied out, but translated from the English version ever so slickly by myself. Americans don't use accent marks. They only get in the way and we can't pronounce the words with or without them, so why bother? I'm not sure I would trust you to teach me anything. ::narrows eyes suspiciously::

  4. I had heard of the singing nun, but never watched the movie or (ack!) the show. And the song was before my time (Seriously! I was born in 1967).

    What a horrible tragedy and what a way to end. Thank you for the story even though it made me sad.

  5. OK, though, after listening to the song, I HAVE heard the song before. I just never knew where it came from or what it's history was.

  6. Hope everyone is having or has had a happy Easter.

    @Stephanie B - Good that you never watched that movie. I didn't see it either but I don't think it was really very accurate from what I've heard.

    No tv show though. I think (good God!) you have The Singing Nun mixed up with young Sally Fields series "The Flying Nun". The one where she had that huge seagull nun's hat and flew around doing... I don't know. Didn't see that either. :) Probably a religious Mary Poppins or something. :) :) :)

  7. I remember the Singing Nun AND the Flying Nun. It's quite ironic that Sally Fields went on to have a lovely career in spite of that show, and poor sister's life was so sad. I hope the Mother Superior of that monastery is thoroughly ashamed of herself, or was made to be so when she had to report to HER superior!

  8. I would like to briefly interrupt this post to thank Max for my place on his sidebar (oo-er) this week! :)

  9. Hi Max, great story told as only you can. Thanks for the rest of the story. Happy Easter Max.

  10. @Linda - Sally was so young and innocent. Like Gidget. Maybe she WAS Gidget. :)

    @Alison - Sure. :)

    @Ettarose - Thank you for the Easter greetings. I was wondering if you did anything like a bunny yesterday.

  11. I've always preferred my fairy tales without their real world endings. But maybe that's just me.

  12. Well, that was depresssing as hell!
    I just wanted to let you know that I have not forgotten about you - nor am I ignoring you. The podcast is currently on hold while I wait for something to arrive from Honk Kng that I am hopeful will solve my audio quality issues. Anyway, the next one should be ready in a couple of weeks. You expressed a possible interest in submitting something. Anyway, my next podacst will investigate whether or not Canadians burned down the White House. Amazingly, this is a topic I have happened across quite a bit lately and I'm hoping to resolve the issue. No pressure, but it might be useful to have another perspective. Anyway, think about it - I'm certain you know how to get it to me if you want. CHEERS!

  13. @Descartes - Me too, I guess. I don't know what possessed me to try to find out what happened to her. Now I'm sorry I did.

    @Canucklehead - I've noticed it is just a year since the infamous Canucklehead wars. I am bored. Time for a rematch perhaps? Last time, I met some really cool people. Who knows what would happen if it were to resume?

    Anyway, I will work something up for podcast. I know it will take you forever to fix your problem, so I won't be rushed. Cheers. :)

  14. I have always loved that song but have only heard it in French and as I don't understand the language I never knew what the song was about. Thanks for the english words, funny how I always thought that it was a happy love song! How wrong can one be, but because it sounded so good one can be forgiven to think they way I did.



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